Women on Juries: The Battles in Florida
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many suffragists advocated reform in a number of areas, including compulsory jury service for women. They saw jury service as a chance for women to enter the public sphere and participate in the workings of society. At the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, women could be lawyers, parties to lawsuits, criminal defendants, stenographers, and clerks--but they could not serve on juries.
Many suffragists believed that the right to serve on juries would come with the right to vote. That did not occur in all jurisdictions. Opponents of jury service for women argued that hearing the grisly details of some cases would corrupt women, that jury duty would interfere with women's obligations as wives and mothers, and that they were too sympathetic and emotional to rationally judge the actions of others. Proponents argued that women were as capable of judging guilt or liability as men, women were encumbered with equal responsibilities as well as entitled to equal rights, and that women were as rational as men. They also suggested that women were fairer and more just than men, women were better listeners than men, and that men might belittle injuries to women. Reform advocates also noted that women had more leisure time, that serving on juries would cost women less than men in lost earnings, and that educated men were too busy to undertake jury service.
Some states, mostly in the North, placed women into the jury system upon ratification of the19th Amendment. Many groups of women all over the country worked for the right to serve on juries in the remaining states, including Florida. The number of women lawyers, who generally favored jury service for women, grew during the 1920s. Many women's rights bills were introduced in the Florida legislature. A few, including one requiring equal numbers of men and women on political party executive committees, passed. A 1939 due process challenge to all-male juries lost, however, in Hall v. State. Florida's high court interpreted the 19th Amendment narrowly, concluding that men were fairer jurors than women and that women were barred from jury rooms for their own protection. Reform pressure continued to build. A married women's property act was passed in 1943, with the support of the state bar. Though another challenge to all-male juries lost in the 1949 case Bacom v. State, the state legislature passed a law that year allowing women to serve on juries on a voluntary basis. Since women, however, had to register to serve, the jury room remained largely all male. Few women registered for jury duty, and those who did were rarely called.
After the voluntary jury duty law was passed, jury service for women lost much of its punch as an issue in Florida. But women's rights advocacy groups and women lawyers still worked for compulsory jury service for women. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1957 required that women and men be equally treated in the federal jury system, the United States Supreme Court upheld Florida's voluntary jury duty law in the 1961 case of Hoyt v. Florida. The Court concluded that the gender classification in the Florida jury statutes was reasonable because of women's social status and their duties as wives and mothers. It was not until 1967 that the Florida legislature finally passed a law requiring compulsory jury duty for women. Finally, in the 1975 case of Taylor v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court reversed itself and held that excluding women from jury duty was unconstitutional.
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